Bard of the Badlands
Boyd Tonkin explores the psychological landscape behind the novel and film of No Country for Old Men
SORRY, Douglas Adams. The answer is not 42. It is 117. But what was the question? In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy’s soul- chilling killer Anton Chigurh pursues another deadly piece of business to a motel door that bears that number. In McCarthy’s The Road , the prior apocalypse whose aftermath the book recounts has taken place at 1.17, precisely, on an unknown date.
McCarthyites — their number is legion, and will surely grow after the Coen brothers’ four Oscars for their version of No Country — have scoured the books of the Bible for an appropriate text. Perhaps Revelation 1: 17 holds the key? ‘‘ And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead: and he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, ‘ Fear not, I am the first and the last.’ ’’
When, last year, The New York Times Book Review polled 200 writers and critics to determine the 25 best American novels of the past quarter- century, McCarthy’s gory historical landmark from 1985, Blood Meridian, came third ( behind only Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Don DeLillo’s Underworld ). The Border Trilogy that occupied McCarthy through the 1990s, All the Pretty Horses , The Crossing and Cities of the Plain , also made the cut.
McCarthy is running ahead of the rest of the literary posse. Why him, and why now? Why should this taciturn semi- recluse who insists that his blood- washed books have to explain themselves be routinely acclaimed as the greatest American novelist since William Faulkner, his spiritual if not stylistic ancestor?
That is a question almost more intriguing than to ask how Javier Bardem, the Coens’ inspired Chigurh, put up for so long with the haircut from hell. A tentative answer might involve some revelations, and not always welcome news about the state of the American soul.
As so often with the authors who magnetise the spirit of an age, biography will tell you everything and nothing. Born in Rhode Island in 1933, as Charles McCarthy, he moved south as a child when his lawyer father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. After university in Tennessee, this famous interview refusenik served in the US Air Force in Alaska and, of all things, hosted a radio show.
As an aspiring writer in the 1960s and ’ 70s, he eked out a living in Tennessee and Europe, living in Ibiza for a while. His debut novel, The Orchard Keeper , appeared in 1965. Albert Erskine, the editor at Random House of that and several later books, had also edited Faulkner. Still very far from fame, McCarthy moved through and past two marriages and, notoriously, plumbed the depths of authorial poverty, though in a barn in Tennessee, not an urban garret.
His first major novel, Suttree , appeared in 1979. It remains, with its fisherman drop- out quitting the city to learn nature’s wisdom, the closest thing to an autobiographical novel we have. A ‘‘ genius grant’’ from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981 then bought the time and space that yielded Blood Meridian , a remorselessly violent tale of the Glanton gang in the late 1840s and their equally savage nemesis, Judge Holden. As its reputation swelled, the novel, with its singular blend of biblically rhythmical prose, stomach- twisting cruelties and doomy philosophical resonance, secured McCarthy his seat at the top table of American letters. But, in general, he prefers not to show up.
A Time magazine ‘‘ dialogue’’ with Joel and Ethan Coen recently showed the sage at his riddling, laconic best, or worst, choosing to sound more like Forrest Gump than Faulkner’s rightful heir. Here’s McCarthy on cinema: ‘‘ There are a lot of good American movies, you know. I’m not that big a fan of exotic foreign films.’’
This gnomic persona, broken at last for an illuminating interview with David Kushner in Rolling Stone last December, did its job for the McCarthy cult. His novels, so rich and yet so reticent, became sites of mystery and invitations to a decoding. What he found in the conventions of the western was a wide- open space ready for a creative pioneer to plant his flag.
The author’s self- appointed cryptographers were soon on his case. Frequently they found gnostic theology behind the slayings and showdowns that fill the Rio Grande with corpses in his work, with its bleak vision of a mortal realm governed, not by the goodness of God, but the forces of a Chigurh- like evil.
Yet McCarthy’s take on religion remains as enigmatic as the rest of his beliefs. The rhythms of the Bible may pulse through his style, but his thinking seems to follow a different drum. You may read him as a satirist of cocksure faith as much as the literary prophet who speaks from, and to, the end- time imagination of born- again America. Writing about The Road , British novelist Clive Sinclair shrewdly noted that its blasted scenery delivers an awful warning to ‘‘ Coke- swilling horsemen of the apocalypse’’: ‘‘ Follow me, invites McCarthy, and see just what that rapture will be like.’’
If Chigurh in No Country can be viewed as some kind of angel of death, or devil incarnate, then the forces of law embodied in frail Sheriff Bell have no answer to his power. McCarthy’s philosophical pessimism can feel less like an offshoot of the Christian Right than an outpost of neo- paganism, the work of some Schopenhauer or Nietzsche of the Badlands. He can conjure up apocalypse without suggesting much prospect of redemption. ‘‘ What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul?’’ asks Bell as he looks back on the teenage psychopath he sent to the gas chamber at Huntsville, and forward to the fiercer winds of breakdown and disorder embodied in Chigurh. ‘‘ But he wasn’t nothin’ compared to what was comin’ down the pike.’’
Comin’ down the pike is, reliably, something even worse. Here, the theological overtones of McCarthy’s prose fuse with his longstanding engagement with science. Sitting in old Europe, it sounds as if that ought to be some kind of contradiction; in McCarthy’s world, it isn’t. That makes him a very American idol. His choice of sides in the ‘‘ two cultures’’ is illustrated by what this former student of engineering and physics told Kushner about the awards dinner at the MacArthur Foundation in 1981. ‘‘ The artsy crowd was all dressed and drugged and ready to party. I just started hanging out with scientists because they were more interesting.’’
McCarthy has made a close connection with the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico: an interdisciplinary scientific think- tank co- founded by the revolutionary particle physicist Murray Gell- Mann in 1984. A base camp for bordercrossing mavericks, Santa Fe also became a home away from home for the novelist, who tests humans and their ethical principles to destruction and beyond.
Santa Fe concerns itself with complex systems, why they work and why they don’t. You might argue that the mechanics of destruction exposed in McCarthy’s work draws attention, by bloody contrast, to the everyday miracle of human co- operation and community. Even the closingtime darkness of The Road was lit by the lightning of the survivor’s love for his son. Not coincidentally, McCarthy became a father again at the end of the millennium.
For him, science guards the flame of creation that literature has lost. ‘‘ Part of what you respect is their rigour,’’ he says of scientists he admires. ‘‘ When you say something, it needs to be right. You can’t just speculate idly about things.’’
A novelist who can spend weeks riding the lexical range in search of the mot juste may well enjoy the company of such spirits. Yet what they think and say has shaped his work as well. McCarthy seems to have imbibed a scientific pessimism presently expressed in, but by no means confined to, worries about climate change and environmental entropy.
At Sante Fe, the subjects that snagged in McCarthy’s imagination include the logistics of mass extinction, best known through study of the meteorite strike that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Traces of this fascination crop up in The Road , but the rest of his oeuvre hints heavily that feral human beings can easily reach their own apocalyptic crisis, without any help from outside. ‘‘ We’re going to do ourselves in first,’’ he said to Kushner when asked about the threat of climate change.
Yes, McCarthy can sound as much like Eeyore as the prophet Jeremiah. This doomsday voice can, in his fiction, teeter on the edge of absurdity. Part of the Coen brothers’ genius was to spot this comic potential and reprogram it into a signal virtue, thanks to Bardem’s exquisite deadpan timing. Sceptics point to features of McCarthy’s work that might disable a dutiful social realist but will hardly bother a writer so doggedly steeped in archetype and myth: the spectral presence of the encroaching Mexicans who forever threaten to wipe out lines in the Anglo sand, or the vanishingly small part that women tend to play. No doubt the cetacean community had grave doubts about the representation of whales in one of McCarthy’s touchstones, Moby- Dick. As McCarthy so ferociously undermines the selfimage of a dominant civilisation from within, he hardly needs external points of reference.
Interpretations of his work will spawn like salmon in the stream. And, for the most part, McCarthy will sit tight, look after his son and read more hard science. It seems plausible to state that, whatever its other qualities, his work poses as tough a challenge to the American ideology of optimism, and the pursuit of happiness, as any major writer. Taking its mood and its words from the Old Testament, that frontiersman’s dread has long haunted American culture, a gloomy ghost at the feast. Social trauma and environmental risk have given it another lease of life. This might pose a problem for any public thinker, let alone a presidential candidate who cheerily sets up a stall signposted ‘‘ Change’’. If I were Barack Obama, I would pay a visit to Santa Fe soon. The Independent